Camp wants kids to avoid summer learning loss

Project Transformation designed to keep at-risk students from falling behind

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The daily schedule for Project Transformation is posted on the wall for participants at Vancouver First United Methodist Church on Thursday morning. Children kindergarten through sixth grade are at the program from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., maintaining a schedule similar to their school day. Organizers say that helps ease the transition from summer into school. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)

Reading, 10-year-old Jonathan Rojas proclaimed to a room of fellow students, is like eating chips.

“Once you start, you just can’t stop?” asked Sean Crews, a program coordinator for new summer camp Project Transformation.

“Yes!” confirmed a smiling Rojas.

Rojas’ enthusiasm is a good sign for organizers of Project Transformation, an eight-week day camp targeting kindergarten through sixth-graders in areas with high rates of poverty. The organization, a ministry of the Methodist Church with several chapters in the South, is designed to help at-risk students from falling behind their peers.

Summer learning loss, or summer slide, is a challenge for all students. Without structured learning, students lose the math and reading skills they picked up during the school year.

But that gap is greater for students in poverty due to the lack of access to summer camps and other programs that support learning throughout the summer, said Rachel Neer, executive director of Project Transformation’s northwest chapter, which opened this summer. Low-income parents may be unable to afford summer camps, drive their children to programs or spend enough time reading with their children.

“A kid born into generational poverty is born disadvantaged,” Neer said. The camp worked with local schools’ Family and Community Resource Centers to identify the students who would most benefit from the camp, she added.

According to the National Summer Learning Association, a nonprofit supporting summer learning opportunities across the country, summer learning loss makes up two-thirds of the achievement gap in reading between low-income students and their higher-income peers by the time they start high school. And while most students lost an average of two months of mathematical skills each summer, low-income children also lose another two to three months of reading skills.

That loss occurs as a function of opportunity, said Monica Logan, vice president of program and systems quality for the organization.

“We know low-income kids learn at the same rates as their peers in other income levels,” she said.

But, she went on, student learning is like a faucet. During the school year, all the resources that come out of that faucet are on for low-income students: the structure of a school day, learning activities and guaranteed meals. During the summer, those resources are suddenly cut off, she said.

Programs such as Project Transformation, which earned the National Summer Learning Association’s Excellence in Summer Learning Award in 2015, can ease the transition between school years. Locally, the program is at the United Methodist Church in Vancouver and Orchards, in the heart of low-income areas of Clark County. Students spend six hours at the sites, reading one-on-one with volunteers, playing with fellow students and eating two free meals a day.

“We planted down where the need seems to be the highest,” Neer said.

Vancouver Public Schools has the highest rate of students receiving free or reduced-price meals — a marker of low-income families in the district — at 50.1 percent in October 2016, according to the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s office. Evergreen Public Schools is close behind, with 47 percent of its students receiving free or reduced-price meals.

Vancouver Public Schools also offers a day camp for elementary students, the Summer Literacy Academy, to support student learning over the summer. The program is paid for through Title I dollars — federal grants provided to schools with high numbers of children from low-income families — though the invitation-only program is available for students of any income who are not reading as well as they should be for their grade.

But Charlotte Pellens, a special services director for the district, also noted that low-income students tend to struggle more during the school year.

“Limited income seems to be a further slide down than those who do live above that poverty line,” she said.

As for Rojas, the eager 10-year-old whose favorite books are “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “Captain Underpants,” he’s just glad for the opportunity to do some reading and make some new friends over the summer. This is the first summer day camp program he’s ever attended, he said.

“I get to make friends,” the Lincoln Elementary School soon-to-be fifth-grader said. “You could make a really good relationship and get to have other friends.”

Katie Gillespie: 360-735-4517; katie.gillespie@columbian.com; twitter.com/newsladykatie